STORY BY AUSTIN CANNON
The 2015 Drake football season is half over, and the Bulldogs sit at 3-3 overall and 2-1 in the Pioneer Football League, tied for third place. Let’s take a look at how they got here and what to expect in the final six weeks of the season.
Biggest win: 34-7 over Valparaiso on Saturday.
Granted, this was only the third conference game of the season, but it was basically a must-win if Drake wanted to stay in the title race. It was a home game against a lower-tier PFL team that Drake had beaten 11 times in a row. With a tough second-half schedule, the Bulldogs simply couldn’t afford to lose.
And they didn’t. Conley Wilkins had three touchdowns, John Hugunin was all over the place on defense and they did what good teams are supposed to do: beat lesser opponents at home.
Biggest loss: 24-14 at Campbell on Oct. 3.
Yes, Drake lost 52-0 at South Dakota, but this was bigger because it was a conference game. Campbell had lost a heartbreaker the week before and had something to prove at home against a Drake team it had never beaten.
Also, the Camels’ defensive line was monstrous, especially against an injury-depleted Drake offensive line. Andy Rice was sacked nine times. Wilkins was out with an injury and Drake was forced into passing situations late, so the Campbell defenders pinned their ears back and spent most of the fourth quarter invading the Drake backfield.
Campbell was good, but Drake could have won this game. Talking to coach Rick Fox after the game, you could hear the disappointment in his voice. He’s said multiple times how winning on the road separates the top teams in the conference from the middling teams, and this was a missed opportunity for Drake to steal a valuable road win.
Offensive MVP: Wilkins
There’s really no other option here. Even missing one game, Wilkins still leads the conference in scoring with eight touchdowns. On the ground, he’s averaging a healthy 5.5 yards per carry for an offense that struggles to pass. When the Bulldogs can run the ball well, they — so far this season — win.
Looking at it this way: It’s no coincidence the offense put up its lowest yardage of the season against Campbell when Wilkins didn’t play.
Wilkins’ most valuable asset might be his dependability around the goal line. Fox said he’s the best he’s ever coached in that regard, and he demonstrated that against Valpo, scoring twice from within five yards.
Honorable Mention: No one. Maybe Rice if he hadn’t missed two games.
Defensive MVP: Hugunin
This one was a little tougher to decide because Mack Marrin is having a great season so far, but Hugunin plays such a big part for the defense that it can’t be ignored. The Valpo game was a perfect example: He had seven tackles, caught his first career interception and forced a fumble. Oh, and he blocked a punt on special teams.
He has forced six fumbles in six games, leading the FCS. The most important one being when he jarred the ball lose from North Dakota running back John Santiago at the goal line on Sept. 12. He’s also averaging 8.3 tackles per game for a defense that only allows 99 rushing yards per game. That’s unquestioned high-level production.
Honorable Mention: Marrin. He leads the PFL with five sacks and is second in the conference with seven tackles for a loss. He’ll make the All-PFL first team.
Reasons for Optimism: Early-season adversity and experience
The first half of the season was not kind to Drake. Injuries put offensive linemen Al Hern and Aaron Melton on the shelf for the season. Rice missed two games and was rusty in his return against Campbell. Wilkins missed the Campbell game as well.
Considering those injuries and the teams they’ve played, 3-3 for Drake isn’t bad at all. North Dakota and South Dakota were both better than the Bulldogs’ PFL competition, so those losses count for valuable experience. Drake took care of business against William Jewell, Stetson and Valpo. The only game that really stings is the Campbell loss.
This team is full of juniors and older. The seniors and fifth-year guys were on PFL championship teams in 2011 and 2012, so, while they probably didn’t play that much, they know what it will take to win.
Reasons for Pessimism: Tough schedule, road struggles
Two undefeated teams remain on Drake’s schedule: Jacksonville, who’s ineligible to win the PFL title this year, and Dayton. The Dayton game is potentially big since it’s the season finale and the title could be on the line.
Morehead State is 2-1 in the PFL and so is the Bulldogs’ next opponent, defending champion San Diego. The Toreros lost 13-12 to Dayton on Saturday in a critical matchup. San Diego beat Drake 17-14 at Drake Stadium last year.
The other problem for Drake is that three of the last five games are on the road. The Bulldogs have yet to win away from Des Moines this season. Hugunin said Saturday that Drake needed to win out. That’s a huge challenge, but Fox said Saturday that the team that wins the PFL will probably have two league losses, so the Bulldogs can maybe lose one more game. Otherwise, they need to be perfect.